To listen to many environmental campaigners, you would think that Britain was a toxic wasteland. They tell us that our wildlife is depleted, that our green spaces are endangered and that 40,000 people a year are dying from air pollution. This week, the Wildlife Trusts came up with another figure: that it would cost £1.2 billion a year to repair the industrial despoliation of Britain.
Everyone wants clean air and water and to live surrounded by healthy green spaces, and there are places that could be a lot cleaner than they are. Yet in many ways Britain has become a far greener and more pleasant land over the past few decades thanks not so much to state subsidy but to business.
Take the figure of 40,000 deaths a year from air pollution. It comes from a 2016 report by the Royal College of Physicians, which in turn derived its figures from government estimates of the number of deaths which could be attributed to pollution from nitrogen oxides and small particulate pollution. Those figures have also been used by Sadiq Khan to justify his ‘emergency’ expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone in London.
The report acknowledges that air quality has massively improved over the past 70 years, but this message tends to get lost. Since 1970, the levels of nitrogen oxides have fallen by 76 per cent and small particle pollution by 85 per cent. As concerning as deaths from air pollution are, this is a story of success.
Remember acid rain, blamed for eroding historic buildings – not to mention damaging human lungs – in the 1970s? Sulphur dioxide pollution, the cause of acid rain, is down by 98 per cent, largely on account of the decline in coal burning.